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Shadows in Dust

Compare the following quotes:

What is life? A frenzy. What is life? An illusion, a shadow, a fiction, and our greatest good is but small; for, all life is a dream, and even dreams are dreams. (Life is a Dream, Act 2, pg 123)
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow Creeps in this petty pace from day to day To the last syllable of recorded time. And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle. Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing. (Macbeth: Act V, scene v, lines 16-27)

Both Calderon and Shakespeare seem to address a similar theme. On one level their references to life being a mere shadow can be linked to the illusionary nature of the theater itself. Both characters are merely this: an actor "that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more." While these characters are merely characters, and not real people, their words can affect their "real" audience. Thus, the reference to shadows in these plays reveals something more than the facsimiles of the acting business; Segismundo's and Macbeth's words speak to the human condition, the reality of our human existence. Just as these two characters question the meaning of their existence, so does every other human being. While Segismundo's and, even more so, Macbeth's take on life may be more depressing than the average human being's interpretation, both are understandable, particularly when one considers the circumstance each character is in. Moreover, this question has been addressed elsewhere. For example, in the movie Gladiator, Proximo asserts that we are but "shadows in dust"--momentarily formed impressions that will inevitably return to dust once again (through death).

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Comments (2)

Erica Gearhart:

Ellen, I really like how you compared Shakespeare and Calderón here. I also saw many similarities between the two writers. I think the theme concerning the life and death of humanity that you point out is very true. Many authors, including these two, talk about humans beginning as dust and then returning to dust when we die. Perhaps they do this because of the reference to this ancient idea in the Bible. Both were writing at times when people would have recognized and understood these references. I also noticed a theme in Life is a Dream relating to the life and death of humanity. I remember at one point, one of Calderón’s characters (I think it is either Basilio or Segismundo) compares the womb to the grave. This, as well as the theme you picked out are both depressing as you said. It is as if the authors are trying to remind us that the moment we are conceived we are already on a path to death.

Ellen Einsporn:

That's a great point, Erica. To clarify for those who are not up on their bible trivia, I think Erica was referencing the story of the creation of man in Genesis. The story goes that God forms Adam from "the dust of the earth" and then gives him life by breathing into him. Thus, according to the Bible, we are literally on the path from dust to dust; God formed us from dust, and, once our bodies decompose, we will once again become the very "dust of the earth" from which God formed us.


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